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By Karen Forman in Melbourne
Imagine having a pro cyclist in your lounge room, sitting back on a sofa with a beer in his hand, chatting away freely about life in the peloton.
Imagine that pro cyclist is an Aussie pro cyclist, one of the guys that you have been egging on as, year after year, he pits himself against his counterparts in the great races of Europe, doing his best to bring home the green or the yellow jersey for Australia.
Probably any of our elite riders would do, but imagine how neat it would be to have one of the four Aussies who actually have gone ahead and done that . . . taken a green and a gold . . . in, say, the Tour de France?
You'd be pretty excited about meeting, him, right?
That's a scenario that became real for around 130 people in Melbourne on Wednesday night when organisers of last week's 2002 Skilled Geelong Bay Classic hosted last year's Tour de France stage winner and Australian Cyclist of the Year, Stuart O'Grady, in what was billed as a "lounge room" style function at the Crown Casino in Melbourne.
The atmosphere was intimate and casual as the crowd gathered around in comfy armchairs, glasses of wine or beer in hand, to hear O'Grady interviewed by the Voice of Cycling, Phil Liggett (in Australia for the Tour Down Under) and later, to ask some questions of their own.
There was also an auction of two yellow and two green jerseys from the Tour (they sold for $1000, $900, $1000 and $1100) and a framed and signed photograph of O'Grady taken during the Tour ($1200).
And newly launched Australian web-based pro team iteam.Nova.com captain, David McKenzie, was there to answer some questions as well.
Winner of 31 first class races, O'Grady, who placed second in the final stage of the Bay Classic in Melbourne last Sunday, will contest next week's Tour Down Under in South Australia before rejoining his team Credit Agricole, in Italy, for the road season . . . a season which he said he hopes will include more top results in Le Tour.
He was relaxed and light hearted, funny and approachable and delighted the crowd by sipping on a beer and making himself available to sign autographs and star in happy snaps.
He talked about:
How he got started in road racing: "I was sitting in a room in Palermo and got a phone call asking whether I wanted to become a professional road rider. I had never thought about it, but I had completed all my Olympic ambitions and was happy to turn to the road.
What it's like to be an Australian competing overseas: "I think if possible they would have an all anglo saxon team . . . (team director) Roger realises we give it 100 per cent. We leave our families, our lives in Australia behind to be able to spend nine months of the year in Europe. A lot of the French guys come to Adelaide for Tour Down Under and a after a week they are saying the food is crap and stuff . . . they wouldn't be able to do nine months away from home. Roger sees these guys are very serious about what we do...";
Losing the green jersey in Paris: "Probably the worst day of the Tour is coming into Paris. It is 160km, the worst day. All you want to do is finish and celebrate with your team. There is this unspoken tradition that you don't go over 30kmh before you see the Eiffel Tower, but there were two intermediate sprints . . . Lance (Armstrong) said, "Stu, what's going on about the sprints? " I said, "I want'em cancelled. You go tell Erik. But Erik wanted to do them. I said to Lance, "what if we do just one and cancel the second. But Erik said no, we have to do both. Well, we did both and I got pumped in both. I lost the green by a bike length."
Enemies: "Any Russians here? No I don't have many enemies. I have a lot of respect for riders . . . just some I don't necessarily like.
Tips for sprint training: "Good parents . . . a natural talent. And whatever you are good at, concentrate on that.
Tips for racing: "Position. The last 50km you are preparing for the sprint. You have to be in the right position at the end of it, at the front. If you are at the back, that is where the accidents and punctures happen. And you have 200 guys sharing a bit of road, all being told down their radios, the same thing. There is only so much road, so you have got to fight to the front."
Offseason antics: "We spend nine months of the year overseas and no-one sees what we do, how serious we are. When we come home we come home to relax. We're only human. We have to be able to let our hair down for three months . . . doing what other people do all year round. I sink a few golf balls, do some bike riding, drink some beers, rest, relax . . .;
Do the crowds bother him on the mountains in France? "I am going so slow I can hear every person I ride past. It does get annoying . . . except for the Aussies of course. You are doing 18km an hour - Lance is doing 27 - and every person wants to scream at you. At the top you have got a headache. And they are going, "c'mon, c'mon" and you are thinking, what do you reckon I'm doing? It is really different, just constant noise."
Liggett answered some questions, too.
Q: When are you going to write your autobiography?
A: I don't know.
Q: What did you think about Lance Armstrong bringing a bodyguard to the Tour
A: That's the way Americans are. If he feels safe with a bodyguard, then that is ok by me."
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